Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Education

Life Force teachers, principal struggle to figure out charter school's finances

DUNEDIN — After the Life Force Arts and Technology Academy's embattled director of operations said she was leaving for a new job, principal Lenor Johnson discovered a problem: Passwords to the charter school's bank accounts had been changed and she couldn't access them.

Johnson had asked Vikki Williams, the outgoing operations director, for help learning the books. But when they sat down together, Williams couldn't explain why the accounts and the school's QuickBooks accounting software suddenly couldn't be accessed.

"Huh. Someone changed the password," Johnson recalled Williams saying. "At that point, I knew it was a game."

That hasn't been the only surprise in the last few weeks at Life Force, a publicly funded charter elementary school that teachers say was overrun by Scientology influence.

School leaders and parents say the school's books have turned to smoke and mirrors, leaving them powerless to plan a budget or hold the school's former leaders accountable. And Life Force's bankruptcy protection likely will end this month, allowing creditors to move in and seek payment.

Hanan Islam, the school's former manager and an executive director of the Scientology-tied World Literacy Crusade, quit last month. But teachers say her appointees have retained a tight grip on the school's money and operations.

"We have people who are doing a real good job of confusing everybody," said principal Johnson, speaking to the Tampa Bay Times for the first time this week. "I really have no one to help me with this school. Everybody that could help me is working for Hanan."

The only remaining member of the school's governing board, Hanan Islam appointee Louis Muhammad, now has sole power to approve budgets for the approximately $50,000 in public funding the school receives each month.

Clearwater lawyer Steven L. Hayes, whom Muhammad asked to represent the governing board, said new members will be added to the board soon. Hayes also is looking for a new accountant to map out spending until the last day of school June 10, saying the school "will have to operate very close to the vest."

Parents and teachers are questioning some of the line items they have found in budgets created by Williams before she resigned. For example, the school has spent or plans to spend nearly $3,000 on a California accountant quietly hired by Islam. The accountant has never been seen at the school and is referred to only as "Pauline" in the budget. No one's sure if she was given access to the school's books.

Another questionable budget line item is $700 for fliers advertising Winter Wonderland, an annual Scientology-sponsored holiday event in Clearwater.

Bankruptcy records also show that Islam's management company, Art of Management, was paid more than $70,000 from school funds between August and January.

"These kids walk around here and don't have water, don't have pencils, don't have crayons," said Konica Ritchie, cafeteria manager and parent of two Life Force students. "How can you be for the kids if you took $70,000, talking about your fees?"

Another concern: Hayes said the school owes nearly $15,000 in payroll taxes. Yet taxes were routinely deducted from teachers' $85-a-day paychecks, leaving them worried that the taxes somehow disappeared.

Not much is known about how money was spent at the school under the administration of Islam and Williams. The Pinellas County School District, responsible under state law for monitoring charter schools, has not received monthly financial statements from Life Force since November, said Dot Clark, the district's coordinator of partnership schools.

The school district has little power over how money is used at the school. But last month, the School Board voted to issue a 90-day notice of termination of the school's charter, meaning it could close this summer at the end of its third school year.

Johnson, who was initially stymied by the mysterious change in account passwords, regained access by visiting the bank and credit union. Johnson said Hayes and Muhammad have agreed to give her about $500 each month for school supplies, but the board — Muhammad — will maintain total control over the other 99 percent of the school's monthly state and federal funding.

Hired by Islam in July as a "public relations consultant," Muhammad was fired three months later after pushing a boy on the school bus. Islam appointed him chairman of the board in January. Other members of the board have since resigned.

Board attorney Hayes made headlines in 1996 when he bought out the assets of the Cult Awareness Network, an anti-Scientology hotline bankrupted after a barrage of lawsuits. Hayes said he was asked to represent the board by Muhammad, whom he had "known from before," though he would not say how. He said he is not charging for his work.

Williams and Islam did not return phone and e-mail messages Thursday. Muhammad said he would not answer questions, saying, "The school is closing. Just leave it alone."

The school now has 58 students, about half of its peak enrollment. Johnson said she is trying to lighten the mood by planning student field trips. Teachers are leading clubs for art, dance, drama and gardening.

"They're my motivation — to see them coming to work every day," Johnson said. "We're not going to let this get us down."

As for Islam, emails show she continued to give orders in the weeks after her management of the school ended. Life Force teacher Lynne Kittredge said Islam recently told her of her next big venture: opening a new private school in south St. Petersburg.

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected] Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.

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